In contrast to gorditas (corn patties) in Central Mexico, which are filled before cooking and usually fried, another technique is to grill the patties without any fat, and stuff them with savoury or sweet fillings after cooking; this method is the norm in Northern Mexico, such as in the states of Durango, and Zacatecas. There is also a type of cheesy sweet gorditas, for which the cheese is mixed in with the dough, very traditional in the Southern regions of Zacatecas; the patties are then placed on individual oak leaves before cooking in stone ovens.
Zacatecas is located along mountains and high altitude terrain, in the Mexican Plateau (Altiplano mexicano), between mountain ranges to the East (Sierra Madre Oriental), and the West (Sierra Madre Occidental), where there is a profusion of pine and oak forests (marked in green on the map):
The oak plant (genus Quercus) includes close to 500 species that may grow as a bush or tree, and can be either evergreen or deciduous. Mexico counts with one of the highest oak diversities in the world, with around 160 species, 90 of which are endemic. Oak plants contain different degrees of tannins, toxic chemicals, but small amounts are considered safe for consumption. Oak acorns have been used by indigenous groups in Mexico and Southern US to make flour, or roasted for hot beverages, and oak wood and bark are valuable for food-grade applications, such as barrels, corks, and grilling planks. The leaves are not edible per se, but are safe to use as vessels for the sweet gorditas, and must be freshly foraged from the trees the day before making the patties; being from deciduous tree species in particular, these oak leaves are not available year-round, and other non toxic leaves are sometimes locally used, such as clavellina (Pseudobombax ellipticum).
I have no access to clavellina, and oak leaves are scarce this time of year in Southern Ontario, Canada, but I keep a small lemon tree inside the house during cold months (photo below, left); I managed to collect some lovely leaves (photo below, right):
If food-safe leaves are not accessible at all, parchment paper squares, about 4 inches (10 cm) in size, will do in a pinch.
All original recipes make a lot of noise around having to use fresh masa (nixtamalized corn dough) made from maize grain, or from a tortilla factory, but these are very hard to find outside Mexico; I still wanted to try these patties, so I started with corn flour (see below). The cheese is unripened, usually panela, fresco, or requesón, and it is supposed to be mashed into a paste, but I wanted a little texture, so I grated it instead. Finally, different families may choose to grind piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar) or use granulated sugar; I chose a compromise and used brown sugar.
Zacatecas Style Cheesy Sweet Gorditas –
Gorditas dulces de queso estilo Zacatecas
Ingredients (for about 18 pieces)
1 ¼ lb (580 g) masa (nixtamalized corn dough) or knead into a dough:
2 cups masa harina (nixtamalized corn flour, such as Maseca™ or Bob’s Red Mill™)
1 ½ cups water
1-1.3 lb (500-600 g) unripened cheese; any fresh cheese or a combination,
such as panela, fresco, requesón, fresh Mozzarella, even ricotta or paneer
½ cup well packed brown sugar, or ground piloncillo
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
18-20 food-grade leaves, such as fresh oak or lemon; washed (or 4-inch (10cm) parchment paper squares)
I did not have any Mexican cheese, but I found ricotta, fresh Mozzarella and Portuguese fresco (photo below, left). I ended up having enough after grating the Mozzarella and fresco (photo below, right):
Place masa (corn dough) into a bowl and break up into pieces; add grated cheese (photo below, left); mix thoroughly (photo below, right):
Add baking powder, baking soda and sugar (photo below, left). Continue mixing and kneading, mashing the cheese, until it is almost not visible, and the sugar has been perfectly incorporated (photo below, right):
Cover an allow to rest, at least two hours, and up to overnight (photo below, left). When ready to bake, pre-heat oven to 350ºF (180°C). Take a portion of dough, about the size of a lemon; roll into a ball then flatten between hands to form a patty (photo below, right):
Place patty on a leaf (or paper square), then arrange on a baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough and leaves, until 18-20 patties are formed, distributed amongst two baking sheets:
Bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating sheets halfway for even browning. The gorditas will rise, then might slowly deflate as they turn golden brown. Remove from oven, and allow to rest for a couple of minutes. They also grow sideways, as seen below:
Serve warm or at room temperature, with hot chocolate or café de olla:
Remove and discard leaf/paper before eating.
My batch of gorditas turned out slightly dense and a bit rough when compared to the original; I can think of a number of evident reasons for that: using corn flour instead of fresh masa (as strongly recommended not to do, by local bakers); not mashing the cheese enough; and too low baking temperature, which is usually not monitored in a stone oven. I think adjusting with half a teaspoon more baking powder, and a higher baking temperature (375ºF-190ºC) could compensate some of those flaws. I guess mashing the cheese would help with the appearance, but I do not mind my patties looking hackly, as I like the distinct cheesy flavour from the remaining bits. All in all, these gorditas were tasty, not overly sweet, very cheesy, and the lemon leaves gave them a citrusy scent and a tad of pleasant bitterness.
For an even more bonhomie experience, families in Zacatecas like to top their gorditas with nata (cream freshly skimmed off milk); I made a dessert also popular in the region, called natilla (little nata), which complemented the gorditas very nicely. Stay tuned for recipes in my next posts.
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I am sharing my post at Thursday Favourite Things #543, with Bev @ Eclectic Red Barn, Pam @ An Artful Mom, Katherine @ Katherine’s Corner, Amber @ Follow the Yellow Brick Home, Theresa @ Shoestring Elegance and Linda @ Crafts a la Mode.